Dialing Back My Hatred for the American System of Government

In the comments to my last post, Andy raises two very good points. The first:

Here’s why not: it would likely destroy the institutional power of Congress–whatever it has left–by stripping it of any serious oversight mechanism. The “A bubble” of administrative agencies that sit between the executive branch and Congress would essentially have free reign, and nobody could seriously question their rules or budget level requests.

Now, this doesn’t argue for keeping non-oversight committee – Appropriations, Finance, Rules, etc. – but it does agitate in favor of keeping some committee structure, or at least creating a new GAO-like organization with broad investigative powers. Still, it doesn’t eliminate option (c), that is committees with heavily rotating memberships. That’s where Andy’s second objection comes in:

I don’t think that routine swapouts are an especially good good idea. The same problem arises here as with term limits: the staff runs the committee (you think that’s a problem now? just wait until committee members play musical chairs every Congress).

This is a really outstanding argument, as standing committee staff members would know former members, who would then be able to lobby those still employed by the committee. And as none of the members would have as much experience in the committee’s issue area as the committee staff, meaning staff would have an even larger influence on votes than they do today. This could be solved if committees were banned from having a standing staff, and rely on their own team when switching. But this raises another problem, namely the potential for the creation of a cadre of Congressional issue experts who hop from office to office when committee membership switches. Their influence would be basically equivalent to that of a standing committee staff. You could solve this if you placed limitations on hiring/firing (no one who’s worked on the staff of a member of committee X may switch to the staff of a new member of committee X, each Rep/Senator has to have a staffer for each committee regardless of whether they’re on it, etc.) but that would basically create a situation where no one knows anything about anything. Which would be bad.

Taking Andy’s points into consideration, I think a more modest option (d) is in order. Keep more or less purely oversight committees–Foreign Relations, Intelligence, etc.–intact, as they function today. The potential for corruption is minimal compared to Finance or Appropriations, and the need for expertise great. Abolish the Rules committees outright, or at least the House one. They’re unnecessary bottlenecks in the process. For committees doing a mix of oversight and traditional legislating–Armed Services, HELP, etc.–adopt a rotating chairmanship with a much more egalitarian distribution of power within the committee and competitive elections for membership. Make the chairman more akin to the Chief Justice of SCOTUS than to the Speaker; give individual members the right to call votes and hearings, with a provision where the majority can override. For committees where you really don’t need as much expertise, which no oversight responsibilities, and with a high potential for corruption – Finance, Appropriations, etc. – either do a heavily rotating system with no staff and hiring restrictions as described above, or just defer bills on those topics to the party leadership, which can then decide whether or not to put it to a floor vote.

This is much more complicated, but would preserve the best features of the status quo while making some very real improvements, especially on taxation/budgeting/social insurance issues.

2 thoughts on “Dialing Back My Hatred for the American System of Government

  1. Thanks for engaging, because I think this question of what should be changed in Congress is an important one, and it’s never really taken seriously. I think your proposed solution has some merits, but I still have to quibble. First, the Rules committee in the House is for all intents and purposes owned by the Speaker. And 90% of what it does is, in fact, what you propose to continue allowing her (floor schedule, etc). Indeed, there already are two provisions allowing the majority to override her: 1) by voting against a rule; and 2) by signing a discharge petition.
    Second, you have this dynamic in Congress where the authorizers on the one hand (mostly in oversight committees) are distinct from the appropriators (in the appropriations committee) and the revenue raisers (e.g. the Finance committee in the Senate and Ways and Means in the House). One thing you quickly learn about Congress is that the authorizers have much less de facto power than you would expect them to. There is a reason why John Murtha, who only chairs a subcommittee, is more influential and important than several full committee chairs. Why? Because he chairs the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, otherwise known as the body that says what gets spent on defense items.
    But if you take away power from people like John Murtha, you inevitably have to give it to someone else. That is, unless you want to take the spending power away from Congress. And honestly, I just don’t have a solution for that.

  2. This seems to underrate the importance of policy expertise no small amount. One of the reasons we have committees is because after a really long time on the Financial Services committee, Barney Frank knows a lot about financial services. That means we not only get better policy outcomes but that other members – and even the public – respect and defer to his developed expertise in a way they probably wouldn’t otherwise to hot bottom Barney (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/local/longterm/tours/scandal/gobie2.htm). In the absence of that respect/expertise under a system like the one you’re proposing, I think we have some good reason to think the real experts – those hired by industry – might consequently have more sway (as they should under such a system!), not less, as their informational advantage would be much greater and thus the demand by members for their view of the world greater in turn.
    Having said that, something probably should change. But I’m not sure there’s a way to reconcile these things without fairly deeply Draconian ethics reforms, which would themselves probably wade somewhat into the policy-expertise-ruining. Any concentration of expertise will also entail a concentration of power and thus of influence-ability. I don’t think it’s a clear tradeoff.
    Finally, I mostly disagree with this paper, but it’s food for thought. http://web.mit.edu/polisci/research/representation/CF_JEP_Final.pdf

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